First flash mobs, then revolutions, now riots. Social media evolves

From the early days of social media, the medium has been evolving with how it is used for gathering groups of people together. Mobs may have ignited by word-of-mouth and phone calls in the past, but over the last decade, we’ve seen the medium become the infrastructure of how mass spontaneous events are organized.

When Facebook started out, its groups and pages invited people to promote events to members, and invite friends to attend. At first it was just friend’s parties with BBQs and birthday parties, and many band’s gigs. People were starting to use Facebook more than existing options like Evite.

From small gatherings, social media, email and text messaging, became a way to organize flash mobs and these really took off from 2003. You’d see mass groups of people gathering in the street to have a pillow fight, or stand like frozen statues for five minutes. A lot of flash mobs gathered at Liverpool Street Station in London, and the cops always had a clue that they were about to happen, as they gathered in greater numbers in the area, having spied the plans for the flash mob on Facebook or Twitter.

In March 2010, the Iraq elections ignited protests in the streets, and behind the scenes Twitter became a main tool for organizing the political gatherings. Protestors alerted each other of where to meet, moving locations of where they accessed computers to use Twitter. Twitter became such an important part of the protests that the Obama administration asked that the service not be shut down for maintenance until the election events concluded.

Again with this year’s Arab spring, social media became a pivotal tool for revolutions.  Most popular for Egypt became the Facebook group “We are all Khaled Said” which became a kind of grassroots broadcast channel, sharing pictures from Egypt and rallying around events with the protests.

Now we come to August 2011 and social media is at the organizational centre of another mob gathering with England’s riots. Reports that BlackBerry Messenger, Facebook and Twitter were all instrumental in gathering hundreds to riot in the streets. It was bound to happen. Someday, someone would use these modern tools for ill will.

For England, it is an embarrassing moment that hundreds of people have waged a war of looting and destruction on their own communities, connecting with each other via social media. Now government officials are calling for the social media channel to be cut off, a ridiculous idea in combating these recent riots. It is a sad example of how social media can be used, but the answer is not to pull the plug on a medium that is mainly used for good works. Watching the medium evolve to it becoming a tool for mass destruction is an unfortunate outcome, but not the shining example of what social media can do. Government officials should look more toward how the medium gets used for the fun of flashmobs and the amazing support of revolutions across the Arab world, and the many good works that have been organized for the riot recovery effort. Cleanups and fundraisers have all attracted attention from hundreds of people to help communities recover.

To only blame social media for riots is missing out on the medium’s ever evolving history, and cutting it off would also cut off good causes.

Say no to the governments threats to turn off social media. Respect the medium and remember the good it has produced.